WASHINGTON — Demanding that he back a “GI Bill of Rights” that would allow millions of vets to attend college, Iraq war veterans here, April 14, delivered 30,000 signatures on petitions to John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate.

“John McCain is the de-facto leader of the Republican Party,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of the 96,000-member VoteVets.org. Holding up two piles of petitions outside McCain’s Capitol Hill office, Stolz charged that, “in effect, he is holding up this bill. He is hiding behind the White House.”

Instead of caving in to the president and the Pentagon, both opponents of the bill, McCain “should stand up for veterans,” said Soltz, who served as a U.S. Army captain in Iraq in 2003.

“The Defense Department is against the bill, claiming it will reduce retention of non-commissioned officers,” Soltz said. “They fear soldiers will get out and use it. But right now they are spending millions of dollars in signing bonuses and advertising” to shore up shrinking enlistment in the armed forces. In fact, Soltz said, a GI Bill of Rights will help recruitment.

Standing beside him was former Army Staff Sgt. Brian McGough, who was awarded the Purple Heart for a brain trauma he suffered when a roadside bomb exploded during a patrol in Mosul, Iraq. Asked about his treatment, he told the World, “The onus is on the veterans to fight for care and benefits. There are benefit coordinators who are overwhelmed. If you fight for the benefits you can get them but they are not enough.”

Veterans need a GI Bill of Rights modeled on the celebrated GI Bill enacted after World War II, McGough continued. Unlike the Pentagon’s current educational benefit, requiring soldiers to contribute from their pay to receive matching funds from the government, under the new GI Bill the entire cost would be borne by the government. It would pay full tuition at public colleges or universities and provide a stipend for living expenses.

With the economy headed down and the cost of living going up, “veterans need a program that fully covers the cost of an education,” McGough said. It benefits the entire society, he noted. “For every dollar spent on a GI Bill, there is a $6 or $7 return. It is an investment in the future.”

Soltz pointed out that 55 senators, including 12 Republicans, have endorsed the bill, S 22, authored by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have endorsed it and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that the bill is a high priority.

The House version, HR 2702, has 120 co-sponsors.

Veterans are angry because McCain, while claiming his support for the troops in Iraq, refuses to endorse the GI Bill of Rights.

“He’s dancing around the issue. He’s stalling,” said Soltz. “This legislation is endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. These are organizations McCain has a long-standing relationship with.”

VoteVets produced a TV ad that can be viewed on YouTube, titled “Why Can’t McCain Sign the GI Bill?” It features Iraq vet Jason Bensley, who receives $650 a month, far short of what he needs to pay tuition and room and board at college. “I’m in debt right now,” he says. “Back in World War II, the vets who came home got tuition and room and board. Everything was taken care of. It’s not the same today.”

Earlier, VoteVets produced a TV ad featuring McGough replying to right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who had smeared vets who speak out against the war as “phony soldiers.” In the ad, while images of his horrific head wound are displayed, McGough says, “Rush, the shrapnel I took in my head was real, the traumatic brain injury was real. My belief that we are on the wrong course in Iraq is real. Until you have the guts to call me a ‘phony soldier’ to my face, stop telling lies about my service in Iraq.”